U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) is leading the charge for better airline management of customers’ motorized wheelchairs. Duckworth has been confined to a wheelchair since her helicopter was shot down in Iraq and she lost both of her legs.
With her own awful experiences with the airlines, and other wheel chair users’ horror stories, Duckworth realized there is a pervasive problem. This past fall, Duckworth got a law passed requiring airlines to report to the Department of Transportation (DOT) how many wheelchairs or motorized scooters they lose, mishandle or break.
Duckworth’s wheelchairs have been damaged three times by the airlines since 2013, including last month, when they jammed the wheel of her $5,000 chair. However, many electric wheelchairs can cost as much as $30,000.
As a person with a disability myself, I have only gone back to flying in recent years. When I was young, my family would have to use Saran Wrap to secure my wheelchair and take some parts off to lighten the load for the crew members. When we got to our destination, we would hold our breath, as we would wait for my wheelchair, anticipating that something would be broken.
Duckworth knows that not all disabled travelers have the same support as she does. A congressional staffer who knows how to react when airlines damage equipment accompanies her.
“You sit there, and you are now immobilized,” Duckworth said. “They’ve basically taken away your legs.”
It is common to see chair backs torn, batteries damaged and frames cracked due to the baggage handlers carelessly throwing chairs into the luggage areas.
In 1986, Congress passed the Air Carriers Access Act, which prohibited commercial airlines from discriminating against people with disabilities. It brought air travel for the disabled into the 20th century. Unfortunately, there has been little progress since.
Many people with disabilities simply choose not to fly as a result of the airlines’ neglect when it comes to handling wheelchairs. Most cannot afford to replace such expensive equipment. And the possibility of a wheelchair ending up in the wrong city is more than just an inconvenience for a wheelchair user it is their lifeline in most cases.
In 2016, the Obama administration mandated that airlines would need to start reporting statistics by Jan. 1, 2018. However, in 2017, the lobbyists convinced the Trump administration they needed more time, which promptly ended when Duckworth’s provision took effect last month.
Duckworth feels that if airlines accurately report to the DOT, it will be eye-opening. Disability advocates expect the reports to show a huge problem.